Merely two weeks ago, George Steinbrenner, a tycoon of the sports world, a shaper of dreams and maker of idols, tragically fell prey to a heart attack.  We remember him today as the man who brought us Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, the owner who molded a team that will live on for their unparalleled success.  He died a legend and a hero beloved by all.  Isn’t it hard to believe that just two weeks ago he was a jerk?

How did he do it?  How did he go from Mr. T to Mr. Rogers in sixty seconds? Looking for a method to resuscitate his floundering image, Good Old George set upon a way to reinvent himself that is safer than Botox, cheaper than a BMW, and even sexier than claiming that he actually never was a maverick:  he died.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that George was a bad person (I’m saying that Joe Lieberman is a bad person).  It’s simply that since the first hominid funeral, the most surefire way to win friends and influence people has always been to start pushing up daisies.  You were a mean and reviled boss?  You’ll be remembered as a tough guy who knew what he wanted and didn’t stop until he got it.  You were a hermit who lived in the company of six cats, a turtle, and an iguana named Dave?  In death, you’ll be deemed “eccentric” and people will regret not having gotten to know you better.  You were the “King of Pop,” mired in child molestation allegations, accusations of skin bleaching, family troubles, bad publicity, a liberal and not altogether flattering use of plastic surgery, and a trademark dance move that you stole from Buzz Aldrin?  In death, you’ll be the greatest artist of all time and the guy who cared enough to name his children Blanket, Prince Michael, and George Foreman.

There is plenty of historical precedent for the “Steinbrenner Effect.”  Martin Luther King Jr. was at a low point in his popularity—accused of being too conciliatory by the ever growing black militancy movement— before the horrors of 1968.  John F. Kennedy’s legacy, a combination of the Bay of Pigs debacle and the Cuban Missile Crisis victory, was hardly set in stone when his life was cut short in 1963.  Even Hitler was considered a pretty big jerk before he bought the Bavarian farm.  Larger than life status is quite often conferred only in death, when the Grim Reaper gets to apply his airbrush to the unsightly moles and blemishes of our pockmarked lives.

Nowhere has the “Steinbrenner Effect” been more in evidence than in the United States Senate.  Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion and civil rights titan, showed that six feet is more than enough to bury any scandal and prove that it’s all just water under the bridge.  Strom Thurmond, best known for his 1948 cornering of a previously untapped voting bloc (racists), still lives on for many (racists) as a champion of state’s rights.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid left such an impression on the American populace that even today, those watching C-SPAN 2 (Trudy and Sam) report seeing his ghost droning incoherently about campaign finance and his lost weekend in Reno with Dennis Kucinich.

Should South Carolina Democratic candidate Alvin Greene kick the bucket tomorrow, he would surely be memorialized for his upsetting of the established political order as opposed to his arrest for felony obscenity.   If Rand Paul were to suddenly bite the dust, he might be remembered for the one time he sat within four feet of a black person.  The deceased Joe Biden will undoubtedly live on as “clean” and “articulate.”

I think we can all agree that our moms were right when they told us not to speak ill of the dead; it’s not polite, and it’s nowhere near as much fun as speaking ill of the living.  So George, you will be sorely missed.  Thank you for making the New York Yankees the greatest team in the world, with their 27 championships and their iconic uniforms reminiscent of the New Jersey penal system’s standard issue pajamas.  And thank you for doing it all with such grace and style.  You will remain forever in our memories.

But for the life of me, I just can’t seem to remember all of that stuff I was saying about you two weeks ago.

(Image taken from http://www.forbes.com/lists/2007/54/richlist07_George-Steinbrenner-III_OJ49.html.  Chris O’Meara, AP Photo)

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